"Notes from the Field": 
   Journal Entry # 4: 
Exorcists and Meditations 




This is a really quick email re the last two days.  I haven’t been getting much sleep.

The village exorcism was great!  We arrived in Bandaragama village on Saturday around 9:00 pm; the "Tovil" ceremony was just starting.  The village doctor, two dancers and two drummers were just getting started.  They had constructed elaborate altars out of fresh palm; one to the spirits, one to the gods, one to Buddha.

About 50 villagers present, swelling to 100 or more when things got started.  The doctor stopped chanting to smile and wave when we came in.  (Two of us had a “treatment” with the doctor two days before; that’s how we got invited.)

The exorcism is performed on a person or family that has been experiencing misfortune or mental/spiritual problems.  They are not frequent.  As one observer kept leaning over to remind me, “You are very lucky to be here”.

The exorcism itself is part spirit work, part cultural exhibition, part village dance and a big dose of comedy mixed in.  There was one possession that took place while we were there, the head of the family went into trance, with wild dancing, screams, other voices, etc.  He passed out after about 10 minutes.  I was told that this process would repeat itself into the early morning hours, becoming more and more serious with each possession.

One event:  I want to take pictures, but don’t know if it’s appropriate.  I take two quick ones.  The main drummer turns and gives me a scowl, then says something to one of the attendants.  Sure enough, the attendant comes over to one of the people in my group and speaks to him in Sinhalese.  My friend turns to me and says, “The drummer worked very hard on these altars.  He wants you to take his picture.”

The drummer has positioned himself in front of the largest altar, still wearing his fierce scowl.  I stand to take the picture.  “Get closer!” I walk right into the center stage and snap two pictures.  The drummer speaks to my friend.  “He says to tell you he is full happy now.”

During a break, the village doctor steers us to front row, center stage.  He is very happy to see us, and we go into a back area for tea and sweet dark cakes.

The early parts of the evening were pretty funny, by design.  One drummer dresses up as a demon, with demon mask, wild hair and a reindeer sweater like your aunt would wear.  Accompanied by wild drumming, he goes climbing around the altars, swinging through the trees, with fire, explosions, etc.  He then calms down and starts an Abbott and Costello dialog routine with the village doctor, while everybody is rolling with laughter.  Once in awhile the demon rushes out into the crowd, chasing the little kids who are screaming and laughing at the same time.

I have experienced spirit work in North and Central America, Africa and Asia.  There are many similarities to the village exorcism experience. However, I have never seen the use of humor and comedy as an integral part of a serious matter as expelling evil spirits from a person or house.  This deserves further study.

We leave around 2:00 am, since the Peace Meditation is the next day.  We try sneaking out to not make a scene.  The village doctor stops the exorcism, comes over to help us find our sandals, and walks us to our vehicle, with half the participants, to see us off.

With a total of three hours sleep, we’re off to Kegalle for the regional Peace Meditation.  (It’s billed as a Peace March, but most participants come by bus.)  I want to go to sleep, but I’m riding with Vinya Ariyaratne, who has just come back from a week in Europe and wants to have a conference about donors and strategic planning.  My mind is numb.

After a wonderful lunch with a Sarvodaya supporter, we arrive at the large park next to a Buddhist temple.  The park is a sea of brown people in white clothes.  I estimate about 10,000, making it a reasonable size for this regional gathering.

After going about 20 feet, Ari spots my sandals and tells me to take them off and leave them in the car.  I have VERY tender feet -- the prospects of walking across this expanse of gravel in bare feet is daunting.  The stage looks like its about five miles away.  The sacrifices one makes for peace...

Ari’s entourage of 30 goes to an ancient chapel on the grounds of the temple, a tiny room with a figure of a Buddha in it.  It is one of the oldest Buddhist shrines on the island.  Ari offers a plate of white flowers, we offer prayers and we then move on to the stage.

The stage is a raised part of the park.  The central platform is flanked on both sides by about 40 orange-clad monks.  Sarvodaya banners flutter in the light breeze.  Behind the podium is the Sarvodaya leadership, including his son Vinya and his wife, and “honored guests”, including me.  Ari has a cushion to himself at stage left; the emcee is standing at stage right.

As the emcee is introducing the event, Ari turns around and motions for me to join him on his cushion.  I decline, indicating I am comfortable where I am.  He gestures again.  I get up, probably my most conspicuous moment ever.  10,000 faces, all wondering, “Who the hell is this guy?”

Vinya is introduced, and gives a short speech in Sinhalese and English, from the emcee’s mike.  Then Ari is introduced.  He takes center stage, abandoning me on the cushion.

Ari conducts the guided meditation in Sinhalese and English.  About halfway through, the skies open up and the rains come down.  All of the monks on-stage whip out umbrellas (what else do they have under those robes?).  Ari is offered an umbrella; he refuses.  For both of us.  A great opportunity to practice mindfulness.  I set my mind on wanting what I was getting.

I am trying hard not to fidget.  I am helped by the images of the war from my recent journey north; there are people dying, people homeless, yet I can’t sit still for 60 minutes for peace.  I will my body to calm down.

After the meditation, Ari speaks for another 10-15 minutes on the course of the meditation movement (more details on this in a later message). He admonishes the crowd for carrying umbrellas; “Because you brought umbrellas, it rained!  Next time, don’t bring them.”  The monks look very sheepish.

They sing a song in Sinhalese, then file out.

During the meditation, no one has spoken, no applause, no demonstrations, a model of self-discipline.  One very startling note: it appears that the crowd was 75-80% women.  This is consistent with the first march of 170,000+.   This may be the Sarvodaya secret weapon: that women will stop the war that the men have started.


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